WASHINGTON — Barbara Lee once called for a U.S. Department of Peace. Lynn Woolsey tried to revoke the Boy Scouts' federal charter because the group excludes gays. And Maxine Waters accused the CIA of helping import cocaine into South Los Angeles.
Their ideas made them folk heroes to the American left.
But like slightly eccentric relatives at a family reunion, Reps. Lee, Woolsey and Waters were rarely invited to sit at the head table in Washington.
The three California Democrats -- who have been waging a passionate, four-year campaign to end the war in Iraq -- find themselves in the mainstream as Congress begins debate today on a crucial war spending bill. And the group they lead, the more than 80-member Out of Iraq Caucus, controls the fate of the most important war vote since the 2003 invasion.
Reporters seek out the three liberal lawmakers, recording their daily proclamations. Waters, the fiery chairwoman of the caucus, is a frequent guest on national news programs.
And as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) labors to find the votes to pass the bill, she is seeking them out. Last week, she invited the three to her office to try to persuade them to support the measure, which would require the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq by no later than August 2008.
"They have really become the conscience of the caucus," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman who heads the national Win Without War coalition.
Andrews credits the three with forcing Pelosi to insist on a timeline for withdrawal.
Lee, Woolsey and Waters have reservations about Pelosi's bill. They are demanding the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of this year.
"We have no other choice but to act boldly," Woolsey said recently after defiant members of the Out of Iraq Caucus left a closed-door party meeting to talk to the media.
"It's time Congress caught up to the people we represent, people who recognized long ago that the Bush Iraq policy is a train wreck," Woolsey said.
Her district north of San Francisco was the site of an Iraq war protest featuring naked women spelling "peace" with their bodies.
Nude peaceniks and other early war opponents now have a lot more company.
A recent Bloomberg poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 55% of those surveyed supported a withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008 -- compared with 39% who opposed such a timetable.
It was not long ago that Lee, Woolsey and Waters were waging far lonelier and more quixotic campaigns.
Woolsey, a former welfare mother who would not look out of place teaching second grade in her hometown of Petaluma, was one of only three House members to vote against a 2004 resolution commending the Boy Scouts for the organization's civic contributions.
Lee, who represents a district where Persian Gulf War protesters hurled stones at Berkeley firetrucks, was the only member of the House or Senate to oppose a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against terrorists four days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We must not rush to judgment," Lee said in an emotional speech on the House floor. "If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire."
Within a day, the former community mental health worker received death threats and had to get police protection.
"It wasn't fun.... But that was the right vote," said Lee, whose steadfast, almost anachronistic opposition to American military campaigns has won her the devotion of the antiwar left. After her vote, supporters wore buttons emblazoned with "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me."
Waters, whose power-brokering and organizing prowess in Los Angeles' black community are legendary, is seen as the political deal-maker of the group. She too has rarely shied from controversial causes.
Waters and Lee were among 11 members of Congress to oppose a 2003 resolution expressing support for the troops in Iraq, complaining that it also endorsed the invasion; 491 lawmakers backed the measure.
Their views weren't always popular in America. They also weren't always popular with their colleagues.
When Lee, Woolsey, Waters and other lawmakers began the Out of Iraq Caucus two years ago, they sometimes couldn't find a room on GOP-controlled Capitol Hill to hold their forums.
In 2005, Republicans tried to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to vote on a Woolsey resolution calling for a withdrawal -- at the time a controversial proposal.
"You upset the apple cart, and people aren't all that happy with you," Woolsey said.
Then came last year's midterm election, and Democrats swept into the majority on a wave of public frustration with the president and the war.
Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders initially appeared reluctant to force Bush to end the war.